History + Timeline
1800s- pamphlets about venereal diseases, overall good hygiene, and the evils of prostitution and masturbation were widely distributed outside of schools.
1913- Chicago attempts to formally introduce sex-ed into their school systems. The Catholic Church helps shut it down. (7)
1914– The American Hygiene Association was founded to teach soldiers about sexual hygiene throughout the war. They would later be involved in creating school curriculums.
1916– Planned Parenthood is founded in New York.
1919– A report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau was released that suggested soldiers would have been better off if they had received sex instruction in school. (7)
1920s– resurgence of interest in getting sex-ed into schools.
Between 20-40% of U.S. school systems had programs in social hygiene and sexuality. (7)
1930s– The U.S. Office of Education began to publish materials and train teachers.
1964– The medical director at Planned Parenthood, Mary Calderone, founded the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) in part to challenge the American Social Hygiene Association.
1968– A pamphlet called “Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex?” is widely distributed by Gordon Drake and James Hargis framing sex ed as a way to indoctrinate children into communism. Thus began the scary rhetoric that sex-ed was teaching students to be homosexuals and that teachers were having sex in front of students. (7)
1980s– The AIDS epidemic takes hold. Religious groups use this public health crisis to push their own agenda and convince school board members and legislative officials that abstinence-only sex education was the only way to keep kids “safe.”
1981– President Regan signed the Adolescent Family Life Act (aka the “Chastity Law” –yikes!). This law allowed federal funding to go to abstinence-only programming. And abstinence-only sexuality education (AOSE) and abstinence-only until marriage (AOUM) programming became the norm in the US.
2004: Study is published showing the harms of abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs and the importance of investing in comprehensive sexuality education. There are plenty more studies that have been published since reaffirming the same results. (It’s possible there were studies earlier than this, but this was the earliest one we could find. Know of an earlier one? Please get in touch!)
2018: Under the Trump administration, Abstinence-only until marriage (AOUM) is rebranded to be Sexual Risk Avoidance Education (SRAE) (1). More federal funding goes towards pushing these programs.
And in the state of Washington…
2018: Washington State enrolled Ch. 64, which requires the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to provide school districts with a curriculum for the prevention of child sexual abuse (1).
2019: SB 5506 and SB 5395 are introduced. See below for what this means!
Wash. Rev. Code § 28A.230.070: This revision was introduced in 2019 and states that “schools shall adopt an AIDS prevention education program using [a] model curriculum or district-designed curriculum approved for medical accuracy by the office on AIDS within the department of social and health services. The curriculum shall be updated as necessary to incorporate newly discovered medical facts (2).”
SB 5506: This bill amendment of 2019 attempted to add information on sexual assault and violence prevention, and consent to Washington sex-ed. Status: Failed- Adjourned (2).
SB 5395: In April 2019, Washington’s House Education Committee “killed the Senate’s age-appropriate, comprehensive, inclusive and medically-accurate sex education bill by failing to act before the bill cut-off deadline of April 3rd (4).”
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
Washington State has an interesting way of going about sex-ed. They mandate HIV education but don’t mandate sex education (3). However, when it is taught, the curriculum requirements make Washington one of the more progressive states in the nation. The curriculum must be age-appropriate, medically accurate, culturally appropriate and unbiased (3). Though it doesn’t stop religion from being promoted, Washington is one of seven states that ticks those three boxes (3). Does that mean the Evergreen State is particularly advanced? Not exactly.
Washington doesn’t join the four states (you read that right, ONLY four) that legally require LGBT+ content to be taught in their curriculum (3). In fact, Washingtonians stopped a bill that would require just that in 2019. The current curriculum is said to be sexual orientation inclusive, but abstinence is still stressed as the only certain way to prevent pregnancy, HIV/AIDs through sexual contact, and STDs (3). It’s a one step forward, two steps back situation. Students are taught that from Grade 5 and onward that condoms and other “artificial means of birth control” are not certain for preventing the contraction or spreading of HIV/AIDS, and relying too heavily on condoms is risky business (1). That’s a not so subtle nudge towards abstinence if you ask us.
But, as we mentioned above, Washington’s curriculum has to meet certain requirements, so the Washington Department of Health Office on HIV/AIDS does review and approve all material that informs students of ways to prevent STIs (1).
Any decisions to provide sex education beyond what we’ve mentioned is completely up to the local school boards, and parents have the right to opt their children out of any courses no matter what’s being taught (1).
What the kids are actually learning
Remember when we said that Washington may not be as advanced as one would think? We had to ask a local to see just what’s going on up there. Amy Lang, MA (she/her), the founder of Birds & Bees & Kids was kind enough to let us pick her brain about sex education in her state.
Lang let us know that, while Washington is above average compared to other states in the US, the lack of regulation on curriculum means that not every school district is teaching sex education as recommended. She pointed us to the FLASH curriculum that is “widely used” by the Seattle and King Count school districts in an effort to “prevent teen pregnancy, STDs, and sexual violence (5).”
FLASH’s curriculum states that its goal is to prepare students to (5):
- Successfully navigate puberty
- Abstain from sex
- Use condoms and birth control when they do have sex
- Confirm consent before engaging in sexual activity
- Report sexual abuse and assault
- Communicate with their family about sexual health and dating
- Make decisions that minimize risk to their sexual health
- Seek medical care in order to take care of their reproductive health
“They just updated it so it’s much more inclusive, but just like every other public school sex-ed program, it’s not as sex-positive as kids need,”
FLASH’s website now says the programming is based on the Theory of Planned Behavior, includes strong family-involvement, and respects diverse communities. However, Washington still requires its programming to stress abstinence in both sex and HIV training, so it’s lacking the sex-positivity that Lang mentioned. Overall, Lang says the content is pretty good.
Lang has an MA in Applied Behavioral Science and has been a Sexuality Educator for over 25 years. Her talks, books, online solution center and podcast helps parents learn how to talk to their kids about this important and awkward part of life (6). Because of her wealth of knowledge, we just had to ask: what would she change about sex-ed in Washington. First things first, she says students should be engaging in sex education beginning in kindergarten. This is contrary to Washington’s current standards.
“I want [people] to understand that kids need sex-ed from kindergarten all the way through high school - waiting until 5th grade is too long,” said Lang. “Starting formal sexuality education in kindergarten - consent, boundaries, and bodies. Every county that does this has significantly better sexual health outcomes for their teens.”
And with the state of sex education in the US, she also has another message.
“Parents should allow their kids to take school-based sex ed classes as a supplement to what they are already learning at home...school will never be enough sex ed for any kid. They need more info from trustworthy resources,”
And historically, Lang is correct. As we have learned throughout this article, there are positives and negatives to what is being taught in even one of the more “progressive” states. On a final note, Lang had this to say.
“I want parents to take the reins when it comes to their children’s sexuality education. I want them to understand that they have the most influence when it comes to decision making and overall sexual health...And [I want parents to understand] how important it is that what they teach and talk to their kids about is sex-positive and based in fact, not fiction.”
Any interesting programs/initiatives/legislation in the works or currently running?
Amy Lang of Birds & Bees & Kids is pushing the fearful state of sex education into the future by providing training for educators, workshops for parents, and amazing advice in her podcast, Just Say This! and award-winning book. Her website has a ton of useful information, and she also allows you to email her and ask her anything. No judgment!
Of course, Planned Parenthood has branches all over the country. For accessible, inclusive, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive resources, Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho has your back.
Written by: Teri Bradford
Have info to add? Please get in touch!
(1) SIECUS. “PDF.” Washington, DC, 2018. https://siecus.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Washington-FY18-Final.pdf
(2) Blackman, Kate, and Samantha Scotti. “Why Is Sexual Education Taught in Schools?” State Policies on Sex Education in Schools. National Conference of State Legislatures, March 21, 2019. https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-policies-on-sex-education-in-schools.aspx.
(3) “Sex and HIV Education.” Guttmacher Institute. The Guttmacher Institute, December 3, 2019. https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education.
(4) Planned Parenthood. “Politics in Olympia Killed Sex Education for Washington State Youth.” Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, April 4, 2019. https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/planned-parenthood-votes-northwest-and-hawaii/press-releases/politics-in-olympia-killed-sex-education-for-washington-state-youth.
(5) “About the FLASH Curriculum.” Public Health- Seattle and King County. King County, 2019. https://www.kingcounty.gov/depts/health/locations/family-planning/education/FLASH/about-FLASH.aspx.
(6) Amy Lang, MA. “Birds, Bees & Kids: How To Talk To Your Kids About Sex.” Birds & Bees & Kids. Amy Lang, 2019. https://birdsandbeesandkids.com/.
(7) Cornblatt, Johannah. “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America.” Newsweek, March 13, 2010. https://www.newsweek.com/brief-history-sex-ed-america-81001.